Ever upward, we tend to think: Bigger is better, more is merrier.
But not always, and credit the University of Idaho for figuring that out.
When it has come to Idaho football, the example of Boise State University has loomed over all. BSU has moved to big time, though now in the Mountain West Conference after a 2011 flirtation with the Big East Conference.
The UI Vandal program has never quite reached those heights, even early on. Back in the mid-70s, looking for a college to attend and uninterested in one that would be football-obsessed, I found the UI amenable. From the end of World War II to the early 80s, the Vandals posted winning seasons in just three years, 1963, 1971 and 1976.
Still, a correspondent of mine (and a highly loyal Vandal) has suggested that “If an institution is going to have intercollegiate football, it should at least be competitive and enjoyable (preferably by winning), produce good memories for the associated social events, and be a common topic of interest for alumni: ‘How 'bout them Vandals?’"
From that perspective, UI did well for a stretch with the first year (1982) of Dennis Erickson as coach, through to 1995. The school may not have have become the national team BSU did, but it scored winning seasons consistently through that period. Athletics-based enthusiasm at the institution may have been higher then too.
Various factors no doubt contributed, a series of strong coaches among them. But the UI’s participation then in the Big Sky Conference, whose members overall were competitive with the UI, no doubt helped. The institution had long been a Big Sky member (and was a charter member in 1963) through its losing years too, but when other factors came together the more local conference may have helped. And local Idaho boosters could fairly easily make their way even to away games in places like Washington, Montana and Pocatello (Idaho State University).
As the Wikipedia account notes, “Idaho experienced its best years in football from 1985 to 1995, when it made the I-AA national playoffs in ten of eleven seasons with four different head coaches, reaching the semifinals twice. After 18 years in Division I-AA, Idaho returned to Division I-A competition (now called the FBS) in 1996 in the Big West.”
The collapse followed. In this new century, the Vandals have bounced around other affiliations including independent, and maybe not coincidentally saw its winning seasons turn to losers. This year, the Sun Belt Conference said that UI (and New Mexico State University) would be dropped from their group after 2017.
So on Thursday there may have been some air of resignation to word that UI was returning to Big Sky. President Chuck Staben said that “I understand the magnitude of this decision and the strong opinions that surround it, both for and against, but joining the Big Sky Conference is the best possible course for our athletics program and for our university. We have carefully weighed our options and concluded that competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain future conference affiliation would be irresponsible when we have the alternative of joining one of the most stable FCS conferences.”
Not exactly the words of hyperconfidence (and just as well), but as he suggests, this likely was the best move. It suggests retrenchment; it suggests a backing away from the big time. But that’s far better than more of the kind of seasons UI has been experiencing recent years.